Palm oil in beauty products: The sustainable guide to navigating this tricky ingredient

Posted by for Beauty

It’s one of the most contentious beauty ingredients around - but is ditching all palm oil the way forward? Stylist investigates.

Saving our planet is no easy task. But whether it’s finding out how to recycle your beauty products, giving up a lifelong reliance on face wipes or switching to solid shampoo bars, these small steps will eventually add up to make a big impact. And the next step on any environmentalist’s agenda? Tackling the palm oil industry.

Chances are you’ve already heard of palm oil. Not only will you see it on ingredients lists in your kitchen and your bathroom, but the substance – and the sustainability issues it presents – have been caught up in debate for quite a while. Environmental groups have campaigned against palm oil use for years, and in 2018 it made headlines when supermarket chain Iceland decided to remove palm oil from its own-brand products. It’s also an issue close to the hearts of guest editors Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, who are passionate about products that are free from palm oil or use sustainable sources.

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Palm oil has a harmful effect on already-endangered orangutans

The reasons that palm oil has found itself under intense scrutiny are complicated. It isn’t necessarily a bad ingredient – it’s actually a useful preservative that extends the lifespan of the products it’s used in. Its bad reputation, however, is a result of the farming methods used to produce it: not only are they having a harmful effect on already-endangered orangutans, among other species, but they’re also fuelling climate change. As with many environmental topics, it’s a minefield. There’s so much confusion and misinformation that understanding the true negative impact on the planet and wildlife can be difficult.

While boycotting palm oil altogether might seem like the simplest way forward, it’s not necessarily the best approach. Yes, investing in beauty products that are free from the ingredient will help to manage your own eco-guilt, but there’s more to the issue than that.

So, the question is: to palm oil or not to palm oil? Read on for your quickfire guide to navigating the world of palm oil more sustainably.

To start with, what exactly is palm oil?

It’s a type of vegetable oil derived from oil palms. The palm originates from west and southwest Africa, but it’s been successfully planted in other tropical regions including Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s an extremely versatile ingredient, and as Alison Kirkman from Greenpeace UK says, “It’s found in more than half of all supermarket products, from chocolate bars and biscuits to soaps and shampoo.” In cosmetics it’s mostly used for its natural preservative effect, as well as its moisturising properties. According to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO – an organisation of manufacturers, retailers and growers active in the palm oil supply chain or working to make sustainable palm oil a reality), 2% of the world’s palm oil and palm kernel oil is used in cosmetics.

So how is it made?

There are two main types: palm oil and palm kernel oil. “To make palm oil, palm fruit [see right] is pressed to extract crude palm oil [CPO], which is then refined to become edible,” explains Kirkman. “Next, refiners process the CPO into what is known as refined, bleached and deodorised (RBD) palm oil. Or the oil can also be extracted straight from the kernel to create palm kernel oil.” That’s the stuff used in foods and in the manufacture of some cosmetics, thanks to its ability to maintain its structure under high temperatures, its creamy, smooth texture and lack of smell.

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Got it - palm oil is useful. So what’s the issue?

“Unsustainable palm oil is having a devastating effect on the environment,” warns Dr Emma Keller, head of food commodities at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). “It’s responsible for large- scale deforestation, habitat loss and releasing significant greenhouse gas emissions, which fuels climate change.” For context, Greenpeace said that in Indonesia alone, an area the size of a football pitch is lost every 25 seconds. This means it also has a detrimental effect on wildlife, including already-at-risk orangutan, elephant and tiger populations. “WWF’s Living Planet report [of 2014] found a 52% decline in animal populations [between 1970 and 2010],” Keller adds.

OK, but should we boycott palm oil completely?

Not so fast. At the other end of the argument are the people who rely on palm oil to make a living. “In producing countries, millions of farmers and families work in the palm oil sector. It plays an important role in the lives of families working their way out of poverty – in Indonesia and Malaysia around 4.5 million people earn their living from the production of palm oil,” explains Fay Richards, spokesperson for the RSPO. Boycotting palm oil altogether would have a detrimental effect on the livelihood of these people. Around 20% of the Indonesian population depends on the industry.

Besides, palm oil is actually one of the more efficient and sustainable oils. The amount that can be produced from one hectare of oil palms is 3.7 tonnes, whereas a hectare of sunflowers, for example, would produce 0.7 tonnes of oil. So if palm oil was boycotted and sunflower oil used instead, farming would require five times more land. Ultimately, the issue is about sustainability.

There are brands that have pledged to stop using palm oil and focus on alternatives. Lush laid out plans to it cut it out years ago, but ensuring there are no traces in the supply chain is not easy as it comes in so many forms – notably sodium lauryl sulphate, a foaming agent found in soaps. Lush has since developed its own soap base with cocoa butter, olive oil, castor oil and sodium hydroxide, which creates a lather without the need for a palm oil-derived product.

But for the brands that continue to use palm oil, their focus needs to shift to sustainable sources. This is why the RSPO was set up in 2004. “RSPO-certified palm growers are audited by an independent, accredited certification body that ensures production processes adhere to the RSPO principles and criteria – a robust set of stringent social and environmental guidelines that must be followed,” explains Richards. “By bringing stakeholders together to seek solutions to the challenges of the palm oil sector, RSPO has created a platform to transform how palm oil is produced, traded and sold,” says Richards. “RSPO membership has more than doubled in the last five years; today, approximately 19% of all palm oil produced globally is certified to RSPO standards.” As more brands start to clean up their act, finding products with sustainably produced palm oil will no doubt become easier.

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Is it easy to spot on ingredients lists?

The short answer is, unfortunately, no. With food, manufacturers have to list ingredients, but it’s a different story in cosmetics. “Palm derivatives make up many of the building blocks of cosmetic science, and those derivatives come under a number of names, making it harder to spot,” explains Gabbi Loedolff from Lush’s creative buying team. These derivatives include lauryl betaine, cetearyl alcohol and glycol cetearate, and when used in products, they either serve as emollients (for softening and conditioning), emulsifiers (to restrict the separation of oil and water) and surfactants (for cleansing, foaming and thickening).

Lou Green, head of sustainability at Neal’s Yard Remedies, adds that switching to RSPO-certified palm oil is a difficult and lengthy process. “The main challenge for everybody in the cosmetics industry is that palm oil is often used by suppliers as raw material for functional ingredients,” she says.

So what can I do?

It’s all about education. As Richards says, the impetus lies with brands to make their sourcing methods transparent. “They need to label products more clearly and in an easy-to-understand way,” she recommends. “The best solution for manufacturers and consumers is to ensure you ask for and only buy products that contain sustainable palm oil,” she adds. And this means challenging the brands you buy from. “People can put pressure on companies and governments to change. Individuals should be asking companies where they get their palm oil from and whether they can prove it has not contributed to deforestation,” adds Kirkman.

We should all keep up with conversations around palm oil and push brands to do more, in the hope that one day we’ll find a realistic solution.

Chelsea Clinton says…

“The deforestation happening as a result of industrial palm oil farming is destructive to the environment. There are, thankfully, palm oil-free beauty products, but you have to know what to look for – palm oil can hide in different forms.”

To keep up to date with the palm oil debate, visit wwf.org.uk and rspo.org – and see our pick (below) of the products containing sustainably sourced palm oil, or none at all.

Products that are tried and trusted

From lipstick to shower gel, these either use sustainable palm oil or none at all

  • Neom-Sensuous-Scented-Candle-£46

    The candle: Neom Sensuous Scented Candle

    Most candles contain palm oil because it burns easily and cleanly. Neom’s candles don’t, and use rapeseed and soy instead. Light up Scent to Calm and Relax, a blend of ylang ylang, frankincense and patchouli that has a 50-hour burn time to boot.

  • Lush-Honey-I-Washed-the-Kids-£5

    The soap: Lush Honey I Washed The Kids, £5

    Caramel-scented and palm oil-free, this bar of soap boasts skin-softening English honey, sweet orange oil and soothing aloe vera gel. It’s gentle on skin and won’t leave it feeling dry or tight.

  • Odylique-Gentle-Herb-Shampoo-£22

    The shampoo: Odylique Gentle Herb Shampoo, £22

    A gentle shampoo that’ll work to help balance dry, oily or itchy scalps. Suitable for all hair types, it’s made without palm oil, detergents, sulphates or fragrances. Aloe vera juice, coconut oil and chamomile help to condition and soothe your hair.

  • Karine-Jackson-The-Moisturiser-Conditioner-£12

    The conditioner: Karine Jackson The Moisturiser Conditioner, £12

    Karine Jackson, a global pioneer for natural, sustainable and organic haircare, has teamed up with Beauty Kitchen to create 100% natural haircare free from palm oil. Deeply nourishing, it won’t weigh hair down and has the added benefit of protecting against environmental damage.

  • Axiology-Lipstick-in-Noble-£29

    The lipstick: Axiology Lipstick in Noble, £29

    Axiology is an all-natural, vegan and cruelty-free cosmetics brand, and this lipstick is palm oil-free and only contains 10 ingredients, including organic coconut, castor, grapeseed and avocado oils, making it both nourishing and hydrating. The pigment payoff with this lipstick is seriously impressive, too.

  • Chantecaille-Ultra-Sun-Protection-SPF45-£84

    The primer: Chantecaille Ultra Sun Protection Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF45, £84

    Chantecaille’s skincare ranges are all made without palm oil. Not only does this primer help smooth skin and cling on to foundation, it also contains carnosine, which helps to prevent collagen breakdown in the skin. Added SPF45 will protect skin from harmful UVA and UVB rays.

  • The-Body-Shop-Mango-Softening-Body-Butter-£15

    The moisturiser: The Body Shop Mango Softening Body Butter, £15

    Always leading by example, The Body Shop was the first cosmetics and toiletries retailer to introduce RPSO-certified palm oil to the global beauty industry. Mango Body Butter has superior hydrating benefits and won’t leave skin feeling sticky.

  • The shower gel: Neal’s Yard Remedies Aromatic Shower Gel, £14

    Neal’s Yard uses sustainable palm oil only if no other ingredient options are available. This shower gel blends aloe vera, organic geranium and lavender essential oils to help you to relax. It also softens dry skin, which is increasingly necessary as the weather becomes colder.

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Images: Brands/Getty Images

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Lucy Partington

Lucy Partington is Stylist’s beauty editor. She’s obsessed with all things skincare, collecting eyeshadow palettes that she’ll probably never use, and is constantly on the hunt for the ultimate glowy foundation.

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